By Darold Treffert, MD
“Leslie Lemke is a memorable man.” That was Morley Safer’s description of Leslie after he watched him play the piano as part of a 60 Minutes program in 1983 on savant syndrome. Dustin Hoffman watched the program and was “moved to tears” by Leslie. When the movie script Rainman came to Hollywood, Dustin Hoffman reported, “I thought, I love him. I want to play a savant.” And he did. Savant became a household word.
The story of Leslie Lemke begins in Milwaukee in 1952. His mother gave him up for adoption at birth. As a complication of his premature birth, Leslie developed retinal problems, then glaucoma, and his eyes had to be surgically removed in the first months of life. There was also brain damage, and Leslie was extremely ill. The county asked May Lemke, a nurse-governess who they knew and trusted, if she would take Leslie into her receiving home, ill as he was and carrying such a dire prognosis. That didn’t deter May. At age 52, and having raised five children of her own, May Lemke said she would. And she did.
In a modest cottage on Lake Pewaukee where she lived with her husband, Joe, May loved and tended to Leslie like a frail little flower. She taught him how to swallow so he could eat and how to make sounds so he could communicate. When he was able, May literally strapped his fragile body to hers to teach him how, a step at a time, to walk. She put his hands over hers as she played simple tunes on a piano she got for him. And she sang to him.
Leslie was intrigued with music and rhythm as a child. Once he was found under the bed strumming the springs in a wondrous tune. He also had a remarkable memory and would often repeat verbatim, intonations and all, a whole day’s conversation he had overheard from whomever he might be visiting. Leslie played and sang often, but mostly the simple tunes May sang or popular songs from the radio. May wasn’t into classical music.
But one evening when Leslie was about age 14, Joe and May watched, and Leslie listened, to a television Sunday Night Movie. In the early morning hours May heard music. She thought Joe had left the television on. She went to turn it off and there was Leslie, playing flawlessly from beginning to end, having heard it but once, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which was the theme song for that movie. God’s miracle, May said, came into full bloom that night.
As a way of sharing God’s gift of Leslie’s music, May began having Leslie play some concerts at the county fair, in churches, and at schools. In June 1980 Leslie gave a concert in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Amazed by what they had seen — a young blind man, mentally handicapped, with cerebral palsy, and never having had a music lesson in his life playing what seemed like a limitless repertoire and repeating flawlessly whatever was played to him after a single hearing — a local television station brought tapes to me, as the local mental health authority, to see if there was some explanation for this astonishing ability. I explained that this was truly extraordinary, very rare circumstance called the savant syndrome — islands of genius in an otherwise severely mentally handicapped person. This was a condition I was familiar with and had become interested in when running a children’s unit in a hospital in Wisconsin.
There happened to be a reporter in that meeting, and the wire service picked up the story of this remarkable young man and his equally remarkable mother. Walter Cronkite used that story for his CBS Evening News program that December. He introduced the segment with, “This is a season that celebrates a miracle, and this story belongs to the season. It’s the story of a young man, a piano, and a miracle.” Other programs, including Donahue, That’s Incredible, and Oprah hosted May and Leslie. The 60 Minutes program aired in October of 1983. Morley Safer considers it one of his favorite 10 stories, and Leslie was part of the 25th Anniversary edition of that show in 1993.
Leslie has given concerts throughout the United States. In 1984 he gave a command performance by invitation for the Crown Prince and Princess in Norway and also has been on tour in Japan. He continued to give concerts but, just as often, played for free at a school, a nursing home, a prison, or a church.
In the 1980s, May’s health began to fail with Alzheimer’s disease. May had vowed that Leslie would never be institutionalized, and he never was. May’s youngest daughter, Mary, took both May and Leslie into her home in 1984 as May’s Alzheimer’s progressed. For a time May lived with her other daughter, Pat. But after Joe’s death in 1987, May returned to Mary’s home to be near Leslie. Mary vowed that her mother would never be in a nursing home, and she wasn’t. As May’s memory faded, it was only Leslie and his music that could bring those memories to life. “That’s my boy,” May would say as they sang together. Then when the music stopped, May would fade to silence once again. Just as she had brought Leslie to life, Leslie could bring her to life — a touching payback of sorts. May died at Mary’s home on November 6, 1993.
Leslie now lives with May’s daughter. Mary Parker. There was concern that Leslie might stop his music with May’s death, as had happened with some savants in the past. But it was not so with Leslie; he continues to play and perform. Music is Leslie’s language, and it has been a conduit toward normalization for him. With his music he is more animated, smiles more, talks more, and one can even see a sense of humor emerging. Now he not only repeats a song accurately after hearing it only once, he improvises and, yes, even composes new songs with his own words and effects. His repertoire seems bottomless, his recall seams boundless. Professional musicians marvel at his innate knowledge of the rules of music. Leslie has never had a music lesson in his life.
Savant syndrome is rare. But even more rare are the so-called prodigious savants — handicapped persons who have skills that would be remarkable even if they were to occur in a normal person. There are probably less than 100 prodigious savants described in this last century. Leslie is one in a billion.
There is some scientific inquiry about savant syndrome, and it poses some vital questions toward understanding ourselves more fully. But May’s explanation when Morley Safer asked her how Leslie can do what he does, is as good as any. “Well, I think, because the brain was damaged, a part of the brain — the musical part — God left perfectly healthy and beautiful so Leslie could have a talent. And he got it!” He certainly did, and we are its beneficiaries.
Monty, S. (1981). May's boy: An incredible story of love. Nashville: T. Nelson
Monty, S. (2012). May's boy: The rest of the story : a book of powerful love and inspiration. Charleston, SC.
Treffert, D. A. (2011). Extraordinary people: Understanding savant syndrome. Lincoln: iUniverse.
Treffert, D. A., & Tammet, D. (2012). Islands of genius: The bountiful mind of the autistic, acquired, and sudden savant.